Stephen Gould reports back on the epic challenge in aid of The Light Fund, as the amount raised edges ever closer to the £250,000 target.
Early afternoon on Tuesday 28 June 2022 and after 18 months of gruelling training, stroke technique coaching and endless cold water immersion, The Light Fund English Channel swimmers headed for Dover.
The plan was to meet our pilots at 10pm and start swimming around midnight. As we gathered as a full squad for the very first time on the sea front promenade in Dover, I took a call from our lead pilot Paul Foreman at 6.15pm. The news was our worst fear. The weather forecast had changed and we were being bumped back by 24 hours. Adrenalin levels plummeted and now what to do with 14 swimmers and four camera crew when no accommodation had been booked.
For that matter, what about the accommodation booked for the following night which we now no longer needed and the accommodation required for the night after which of course had not been booked as we didn’t think we needed it? Logistical chaos ensued. At this point I should call out Terry Lamb as the maestro of hotel booking manoeuvres. If you need a hotel room at short notice, Terry is “yer man”!
Fast forward 24 hours and we are back at Dover Marina and the weather actually looks a lot worse than it did the day before. We also have torrential rain – the sort that hits the ground and then bounces back up and slaps you about the face for good measure – and it’s blowing a hooley. Most of us were now on day three of taking Stugeron as a precaution against seasickness which you should start taking at least two days before a Channel swim. Despite the drowsiness side effects for a few, we were all as prepared as we possibly could be on this aspect of ocean decorum. Regardless of the weather, this time we were ‘go’ and we meet the pilots and load up both boats.
Our swim is registered with the Channel Swimming & Pilots Federation (CS&PF) which is one of two governing bodies for Channel swimming. Once on-board we were introduced to our observers and we push off from the visitor’s pontoon inside the new marina. As soon as we leave the sanctity and serenity of the harbour walls at Dover we were quickly inducted to the reality that awaited as both MV Optimist and MV High Hopes took on the persona of a roller coaster at Alton Towers. Hilarious for the first few minutes until the knock knock at heaven’s door from our pre-swim supper at local Italian eatery Il Rustico.
Just after 11.10pm the first two swimmers stepped off their stern deck boards and into the churning surf in the pitch black of night and swam for shore. As one of these swimmers I am not ashamed to admit that this was utterly terrifying. The wind, the rain, the waves and the heart pounding sound of pebbles being tossed up and down the beach with each swell as it smacked terra firma was indeed an experience of wrenching sobriety. At 11.21pm from the beach at Samphire Hoe, Ian Down for team Optimist and myself for High Hopes started our epic adventure across the ominous and unpredictable English Channel… and boy did La Manche throw everything it had at us and more.
The refraction of the waves off the Cliffs of Dover made the first leg more than a little lively and at many times during this swim the pasta from Il Rustico was never far from making a second appearance. Swim hats were dislodged by the waves and inevitably this meant the dreaded leaking goggles. We were swimming blind in what felt like a washing machine. Swimming into the night continued with Eion Wallace and Mark Kingston on the second tour of duty as they now became acquainted with sea conditions that were to remain consistently harsh and challenging throughout.
Still in the dark it was now wave three with Katie Price and Rhys Fleming. Both were engulfed in swell with Rhys swimming very close to the boat and getting a double whammy of white water assault as the waves bounced back again off the buckaroo-like hull. The swimming was very tough. Momentum was nigh near impossible as the movement of the ocean negated forward propulsion. Arms were caught on the recovery phase by rogue waves and breathing was never guaranteed as we played Russian roulette with the target air space that would either be a breath or salt water.
Dawn was now beckoning and in went wave number four with Mark Bezodis and Anne Bradford. Again the same issues in the water as the rest of us had thus far endured. Audible support from each boat was waning as more and more succumbed to seasickness. We were now in the ‘Separation Zone’ between British and French waters. This area is like the M25 at rush hour with regard to shipping – ruddy large tankers at that – with a bit of the aftermath of Glastonbury thrown in as bilge can be legally dumped here and detritus is unfortunately somewhat mainstream.
Next was wave five with Jason Goonery and Anna Hewitt. Both were in a less than utopian swimming state having been seasick almost from the off, however, in they boldly went and in they bobbed like plastic ducks in a flushed toilet. It was still not quite daylight, however, it was light enough to see that we were encountering periodic swells in excess of two metres. On a boat that is essentially a large yogurt pot at sea chugging along at a swimmer’s pace in choppy water with wind over tide, this was turning into a torturous experience for everyone. The only saving grace in such turbulence was that the jellyfish which were present in abundance, dropped about a metre in depth beneath the surface. That said, it was still like swimming through a soup of breast implants and many of the swimmers did get stung… although nothing worse than a comparable nettle sting.
Finally, wave six was in action with Kevin Langstaff and Simon Gresswell. This would be the last swim with our green safety night lights, however, not our last swim feeling green to the core. Having felt that I had only just swum, five hours had passed and it was my turn to get back in the water for the second rotation. Having swum a complete set of six we could not now change this order in any way for the remainder of the swim and to do so would mean instant disqualification. This is how this challenge event differs to any previously done by The Light Fund.
At this point, nine of our 12 swimmers were seasick. Some admittedly more than others, however, the vomit buckets were in full-swing and ironically we were unable to secure any corporate sponsorship for these. Crikey was that a missed opportunity dear licensing fraternity! With seasickness came weakness and incapacity combined with poor stroke technique and the inevitable insecurity, self-doubt, floundering and dare I say panic for one or two. Of particular concern were the rapidly deteriorating conditions of both Jason Goonery on Optimist and Anna Hewitt on High Hopes. No movement, no intake of food or water and no ability to even sit up let alone communicate. No escape or refuge from the cause of distress in the knowledge that this entire enterprise now hinges on overcoming their disposition and swimming once again. Ironically, the only immediate relief was to get back into the cold water and start swimming through the mayhem.
As the second rotation got underway, we were informed that we were officially swimming in Force 5 weather conditions. This was not the weather that had been forecast and it is not something that any of us would recommend you do dear reader. We now also learn that another boat – fortunately unrelated to The Light Fund – had returned to port before even reaching Samphire Hoe as the number two swimmer in that relay team had fallen unconscious with a mix of ocean swell and pre-swim nerves and was now hospitalised. The English Channel is an unpredictable and notorious stretch of water that does not always play ball regardless of how meticulous the planning.
With only ten minutes to go until their swim slot, Jason and Anna were unrobed and clad with swim hat and goggles. Jason had perked up a bit with a late intake of Kwells on top of his Stugeron, however, Anna was keeping nothing down and was already shivering with cold and had notably visible goose bumps before even getting back into the water. As she climbed down the steps of High Hopes onto the stern deck the fear in her eyes was palpable. In an endeavour to provoke and engage whatever energy reserves she had left, we said “Just float on your back for an hour – anything at all, just do not get out”.
In she got and was immediately smothered by a swell which led to an instant anti-peristaltic turn. Swimming and being sick at the same time is a unique experience and a unique skill to master. Anna has just graduated with honours. With fantastic encouragement from the boat – including the pilot Simon Ellis on his intercom – Anna managed to start swimming breaststroke. This stroke is normally taboo, however, exceptional circumstances require certain discretion. We read out comments to her from the WhatsApp thread and we even sang to her and she ruddy well went and did it – for an hour with a bit of token front crawl thrown in too. Incredible. And the first thing she did when she was on the ladder at the back on the boat and not quite fully back on-board was to re-bond with her friend the chuck bucket. Anna Hewitt – we salute you in perpetuity. Jason too had delivered the seemingly impossible and both boats were still in the game.
It was somewhere around now that both pilots transitioned from an austere feeling of despair, to tolerance, to respect, to unequivocal encouragement – they had not witnessed such stoicism, sense of purpose and focused team work in a very long time. This may sound a tad crass, however, it is exactly what occurred and it was utterly invigorating and humbling to witness.
Poor Kevin Langstaff had a torrid time too. A historical motorcycle accident has left him with a leg with a mind of its own and getting on and off a ladder like a swinging pendulum which was in the water one moment and in the air the next was like something off Ninja Warrior Advanced. Kevin was also a little too fond of the Vaseline used to prevent chafing and when being assisted up the ladder after each swim his teammates literally slid off him. Many of us are hoping he does shave that beard off now that he is back on dry land as it acted like a sieve for his darker moments at sea!
With strong, fast and solid swims coming in from the first and second of the third rotation against currents threatening to drag us into the Calais shipping zone and upsetting French Coastguard, the stage was set for Rhys Fleming to lacerate his knees and shins when touching a French cliff for Team High Hopes in 14 hrs and 56 mins and for Jason Goonery to land on a rather more welcoming and charming beach for Team Optimist in 15 hrs and 24 mins. These landings were at Sangatte and incredibly both teams were only a few hundred metres apart when hitting France after all that time at sea.
We had prepared for all eventualities except the one we got. Had the weather forecast been correct, we would not have left Dover when we did. Each swimmer has done something truly remarkable and on the day when the odds were most definitely stacked against us, we all worked together as a team with unequivocal determination and tenacity. That is why we are all now Channel swimmers.
A massive thank you to all our support team, in particular Terry Lamb and Tasmyn Knight who were reserve swimmers on the day and who supported the teams on the boats through thick and thin. They saw what no industry colleague should have to see and their contribution was invaluable. Thank you also to Nicola Webster for being a superstar on all things social media and to Jane Garner and her team at Kilogram Media for our wonderful PR and comms.
As a seasoned open water swimmer of some 35+ years, I am incredibly proud of everyone and feel truly humbled. At the start of this journey four of the squad could not swim front crawl. What these guys achieved was nothing short of phenomenal. I know that, the pilots know that and the observers know that. Anyone reading this must now know that too. Many considerably more experienced and undoubtedly stronger swimmers would have thrown the towel in. These guys did not and that says a lot about each swimmer as individuals and, of course, the wonderful licensing industry as a whole. The bond we all have now is unique and will never be taken away from us. We dared to do something that others only dream of and in the face of great adversity we succeeded. It wasn’t pretty, however, that makes for a better story.
The Light Find now enters the official record books of English Channel swimming not just once, but twice and we are in very good company which all started with Captain Matthew Webb in 1875. This swim is historical as well as hysterical!
I read all the WhatsApp comments a few days ago for the first time from start to finish and it took me three hours! I could not read these on the boat as my glasses had gone overboard in the swell after my first swim and I was struggling to hold my own constitution together anyway while also dealing with the early casualties of seasickness.
When we started this journey we had a fundraising target of £75K, which then quickly doubled to £150K before we settled at £250K. This is a very tall order in these uncertain times and yet we are so very, very close to reaching our goal. Pomposity aside, this is a remarkable achievement and is a huge testament to the generosity of our industry and the tenacity of this swim squad to not only humour the English Channel, but, to also beat the previous Light Fund single challenge event fundraising record. Anything you can still offer no matter how seemingly small or insignificant will be greatly appreciated. Our group JustGiving page link can be found here.
We are giving 25% of what we raise to the wonderful RNLI and the balance will be distributed to other worthy charities who apply to The Light Fund each year for support. More information on The Light Fund and their beneficiaries can be found here.
Thank you to our master sponsors, Playmates Toys and Wow! Stuff and the countless people in the industry who have donated and supported us (sorry there are simply too many to mention here by name) and for the awesome WhatsApp crew on the night most of whom stayed up all night with us. You have no idea how much strength and fortitude you gave us during those lowest of low moments. Thank you so much for the support and indeed the addictive and contagious laughter that came with it… the only real alternative to crying!
“Family is a life jacket in the stormy sea of life”.